1. Naked. Given the quality of breadth of Mike Leigh's body of work, it is difficult to pick out a standout movie. I would suggest Naked as this is perhaps Mike Leigh's most consistent film and above that, it is a uniquely powerful and intelligent piece of modern cinema. read Naked full review
2. Career Girls. This one was more of a low key release and a disappointment in some areas. The basic story and acting are terrific and again is much more consistent than some of Leigh's work. It is let down by some contrivances in the plot, but overall this is a seriously undervalued and overlooked film in Leigh's cannon. read Career Girls full review
3. Meantime. Now a cult favourite amongst a new generation of movie watching audience this gem from 1983 manages to combine the bleak surroundings of the unemployment boom recession hit streets of London with the spirit and dark humour of the kids existing in the run down surroundings. Muppet indeed!
April 2015. A remastered, restored version of High Hopes is released on 13th April on Blu-ray.
March 2015. Mr Turner is released on Blu-ray, and 2-disc and single disc edition DVD. On the same day Secrets and Lies receives a Blu-ray release.
March 2015. Mike Leigh has been awarded the prestigious BAFTA fellowship. His acceptance speech was both very moving, witty, inciteful and magnanimous. Given BAFTA's often perverse treatment (lack of nominations etc) of many of Mike Leigh's films (Mr Turner included in this very awards ceremony), it was great to see the man recognised on this night for his tremendous achievements achieved within British independent cinema.
June 2013. Mike Leigh's latest project has just begun filming. It will be a bio-pic of the artist J.M.W. Turner. The title role is being played by veteran of many a Leigh project - Timothy Spall. Dick Pope will again be cinematographer. Turner is due for release in 2014, and if its anywhere near as good as his previous historic bio-pic Topy Turvy then we are in for a real treat.
May 2013. Life is Sweet receives a Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection. Extras include: audio commentary featuring director Mike Leigh; Audio recording of a 1991 interview with Leigh at the National Film Theatre in London; Five short films written and directed by Leigh for the proposed television series Five-Minute Films, with a new audio introduction by Leigh. Plus: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic David Sterritt.
July 2012 . A Running Jump Mike Leigh's most short film has received it's UK terrestrial TV screening and is still available to watch on the catch up services BBC iplayer and 4OD. We really liked the short film and it seemed very reminiscent of Leigh's Film 4 films of the late 80s and early 1990s. Hopefully the shorts will receive an official DVD release in due course. The trailer for the shorts season at the cultural Olympiad has been released and is now below.
March 2012. Mike Leigh's next project is a 35 minute short film entitled A Running Jump. The short will star regular Mike Leigh collaborators Eddie Marsan and Sam Kelly, alongside Samantha Spiro, and twins Danielle and Nichole Bird. The comic short was shot over three weeks of Summer 2010 in East London, and is set to a back drop of everday people enjoying sport whilst getting on with their everyday lives. The film will be presented as part of the London 2012 Festival alongside three other shorts (the others being by Asif Kapadia, Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini, and the always wonderful Lynne Ramsay). The festival runs between 24th June to 9th September 2012. The shorts will also be shown on television on both Channel 4 and the BBC during the same period. We will bring you the actual screening dates as soon as they are announced.
Mike Leigh biography part 1: Early years to 1977
Mike Leigh was born on 20th February 1943 in Salford, Manchester, England. Moving down to London in 1960 with the vowed intent of becoming an actor, by 1965 he had studied at RADA, Camberwell Art School, The Central School of Art and Design and The London International Film School and in between times had been an assistant stage manager at theatre, and acted bit parts in both film and television. For the rest of 1960's Mike Leigh would move away from acting and the "legitimate" theatre into the theatre workshops which would allow him to develop his method "writing" plays and then directing them. Mike Leigh's method of writing that was developing during this period (that he has continued with ever since throughout his career) is to bring together a group of actors, and to allow them to improvise around the smallest guidance from him. Based on these improvisations Leigh would bring together the bits that worked and start working them into a script, continually returning to improvisations in a way as organically as is possible in order to work up the developing script, until such time as the script is finished.
In 1971 Mike Leigh got to make his first film Bleak Moments. The film was based on the stage play of the same name that he had made during 1970 with that stage cast returning for the movie with an extended cast. The film surrounds Sylvia, a lonely unfulfilled young woman who cares for her "retarded" sister and hopes for some olive branch to a better life. Sylvia's work colleagues and potential suitors unfortunately are unable to offer any escape route and are more confined (emotionally) than Anne is herself. Although Bleak Moments was a critical success praised for its freshness and innovation and particularly complimented Leigh's ability to portray and maintain the stultifying awkwardness of the characters throughout the whole duration of the film, unsurprisingly perhaps, the film went virtually un-noticed by the movie going public. Mike Leigh continued directing his improvisational inspired stories in the theatre.
In 1973 he was given the chance to make a film for BBC Television's hugely influential Play for Today series and this turned out to be Hard Labour. The TV film focuses on the life of Mrs Thornley, a cleaner for an upper middle class lady, Mrs Stone. We see Mrs Thornley's daily drudgery and her relationships with her cold and demanding husband, her unmarried daughter and her son and his social climbing wife. Hard Labour would feature future Mike Leigh favourites Liz Smith (as the tired put upon Mrs Thornley) and Alison Steadman (as the social climbing wife). Mike Leigh married Alison Steadman later in 1973.
More work with the BBC Television followed initially a series of Five Minute Films. By the end of 1975 five of the shorts had been completed, but were not screened at the time and the idea was abandoned, (they were not screened until 1982 - which is a shame as they were very good). Further BBC television worked followed this time in the Second City Firsts strand followed in 1975 with The Permissive Society. This was a studio based thirty minute play set on a Friday night in a high rise flat in Lancashire where we view Bob and his recently acquired girlfriend tentatively struggling through the awkwardness of their first relationship, with Bob's sister, freshly returned from her prematurely ended night out (after being stood up) hovering around trying to make herself busy. A second piece in the same strand called Knock for Knock was screened in 1976, the piece about an insurance salesman doing his best not to sell insurance to a gentleman wishing to buy insurance from him. Knock for Knock received much praise from TV critics at the time. Unfortunately the idiots in the BBC decided to wipe the tape as part of a space saving exercise and no known copy exists (not even with Mike Leigh himself).
Also in 1976 Mike Leigh was commissioned for a further Play for Today and this commission turned into one of Leigh's most popular and enduring works and also the piece that would break him into the consciousness of the general public. Nuts in May saw Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman reprising their character roles of Keith and Canidice-Marie Pratt from Leigh's 1973 theatre piece Wholesome Glory. Nuts in May shows the Pratts on a dull (they way they like it) camping holiday in Dorset, to a back drop of a bracing English summer (i.e. wet, windy and let's face it, miserable). We find Keith eagerly pawing over OS maps, measuring the daily rainfall, and carefully chewing various foodstuffs the exact amount of times optimal to aid digestion. Candice-Marie, a timid creature, wetly follows his lead. Unfortunately their holiday gets ruined when various campsite users commit such heinous crimes as playing a transistor radio, and attempting to light a camp fire and, as a "reasonable" citizen, Keith tackles them on their duty to follow the "Country Code". Nuts in May is a tremendously amusing piece of work from start to finish, and allowed Leigh to show his versatility in being able to turn his hand from the dirge and chest tightening reserve of Bleak Moments to the light-hearted humour of Nuts In May.
1977 saw the next in his series of films for the Play for Today series. The Kiss of Death centres around the character of Trevor, a shy and nervous undertaker's assistant. We follow Trevor's progress at work, and out at the disco with his self-assured mate Ronnie. They then form a foursome with the quiet Sandra and the predatory Linda, unfortunately gets paired with Linda who frustrated by Trevor being so behind when coming forward, she becomes more and more predatory leaving Trevor emasculated and nervously giggling.
1977 also saw the now legendary Abigail's Party brought to the small screen. Abigail's Party was a huge hit when shown on TV but had it not been for some rather convoluted pieces of luck, the play may have never even been written, let alone recorded for TV and a piece of TV history would never have seen the light of day. Whilst preparing for his next BBC TV project, Leigh was asked by The Hamsptead Theatre whether he could put together a play for the theatre at short notice as one of the plays in its schedule had been cancelled. With the help of his wife Alison Steadman (who would play the lead character Beverley), Leigh "rushed" together a cast and out of this came the play. Abigail's Party was a theatrical roaring success (especially considering its production was confined to a provincial theatre) but any hopes of transferring it to the West End in the future were dashed when Alison Steadman become pregnant. That might have been the end of the story until The BBC became short of a play when a controversial play of theirs about Northern Ireland had to be cancelled for legal reasons. Due to the time constraints Mike Leigh was persuaded at short notice to perform the play in the hastily arranged set in a TV recording studio. The action all takes place at the home of Beverley (a pleased with herself, house proud, social climbing monster) and her husband Laurence (an estate agent with only a passing interest in his "showy" wife). Beverley has invited over the two new neighbours Angela (a plain and girlish nurse) and her husband Tony (a rather sullen ex-footballer turned computer operator) and Sue (the mouseish divorcee mother of the unseen Abigail) who has reluctantly agreed to go to Beverley's to allow 15 year old Abigail to have her party without her hanging around all the time. As the evening progresses Beverley plays the hostess role to full showing off her house and contents at every opportunity and dishing out "well meaning" advice to Sue and viscous barbs to her husband Laurence. Buoyed by drink and mutual loathing the evening sprints towards its final crescendo. Abigail's Party was a huge hit in television earning Alison Steadman an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.
Mike Leigh biography part 2: 1979 to 1992.
Mike Leigh's next installment for the Play for Today series was Who's Who (1979). Perhaps not one of his best plays, though very amusing in parts Who's Who was a satire on the Stockbroker set. Starring future Leigh stalwart Philip Davis the artistically only semi-succesful and in global terms did little to prevent the rise of Thatcher and the Yuppies. Perhaps it was that this was six or so years ahead of its time and some similar points were much more skillfully made in Leigh's later feature High Hopes. But we are getting ahead of the story.
The much more satisfying Grown-Ups followed in 1980 with a full Leigh rep company now in tow (Philip Davis, Lesley Manville, Janine Duvitski, Brenda Blethyn and Sam Kelly). Grown-Ups shows us the life of newlyweds (and childhood sweethearts) Dick and Mandy as they move into their new council house, coincidentally next to a privately owned house lived in by their old teacher and his wife. Before life can settle down Mandy's older sister Gloria becomes a regular visitor and a general nuisance busying herself around the home. As Dick's frustration grows it becomes clear that rather than Gloria spending time at home looking after her mother she will find any excuse to spend as much time with Dick and Mandy. A crisis is reached when Gloria protests that she has been thrown out of home by her mother and so she must move in with Dick and Mandy. Brenda Blethyn's portrayal as the annoying Gloria is something of a tour de force, and parallels can be drawn in the mannerisms and characterisations with Gloria and her oscar nominated role of Monica in Leigh's Secrets and Lies.
1982 saw Mike Leigh's final contribution to the Play for Today series. Home Sweet Home followed the lives of three postmen - Stan, Gordon and Harold. Central to the story is Stan who is having an affair with Harold's wife and also receiving attention from Gordon's wife. This is the archetypal Mike Leigh nothing happens except life type story (which of course is the most resonant of all). Eric Richard and Timothy Spall are both absolutely superb in this, and despite its low key subject nature Home Sweet Home is generally well regarded in Leigh's canon of work.
1983 saw Mike Leigh's first film for the newly formed commercial TV channel Channel 4. Meantime was Mike Leigh's response to the burgeoning unemployment that had swept over Britain and the knock on effect of the hopelessness of the young people in urban environments. The action such as it is revolves around Mark and his seemingly slow witted brother Colin, who live with their parents in a run down council flat. All three men are unemployed and the tension and bad feeling is palpable. The pub is virtually the only recreation left, apart from watching Coxy the brainless punk headbutt lamp posts and beat up oil drums. Despite such a depressing premise Meantime has gone on to be a cult movie amongst youngsters coming to the film via its Video and DVD releases. A lot of this is down to the superb cast Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, Phil Daniels whose characters are so strong, and whose rich dialogue is such that its most memorable lines have almost become absorbed into the popular consciousness.
By way of contrast Four Days in July from 1985 (his last for the BBC) is arguably one of Mike Leigh's least satisfying works. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland around the four days of festivities in the protestant calendar, the story examines the communities on both sides of the sectarian divide. What we see is the daily lives and the similarities in the divided community. Whilst Four Days in July received praise for its authenticity it also gave one the feeling that there was a message underlying every single word uttered. That the message itself seemed bigger than the normal day to day lives of the characters seemed at odds with what Leigh seems to strive for in all his other works or perhaps this is just the one that got away.
Following a period of enforced rest due to a bought of stress related illness Leigh eased himself back to work with the short film Short and Curlies (1987). A light comedy which includes two stunning performances. One by Alison Steadman as the delightfully nosey and chatty hairdresser Betty and secondly by David Thewlis, as the fast talking, bad gag merchant Clive (the short can be tracked down on the VHS version of Life is Sweet).
1988 finally saw the second Mike Leigh film to be given a full cinematic release some 17 years since his first. The Film Four funded High Hopes, tells the tale of Cyril, a Marxist wishing for a Utopian society, and his girlfriend Shirley who longs to start a family with the reluctant Cyril. Cyril's mum (Mrs Bender) is getting old and becoming increasing forgetful, when one day she locks herself out of her council house (the only one left in the now posh residential area, her condescending upper class neighbours reluctantly take her in (to stop the street looking messy) to arrange for her to be picked up and put back in her own house. Mrs Bender's socially climbing daughter, Valerie (played brilliantly by Heather Tobias) gets the call and rushes round, not only to pick up her mother, but really to have a look around the neighbour's house. High Hopes was considered a return to form, and possibly could be considered Leigh's most rounded piece of work up to that point. A superb cast (including Leigh regulars Lesley Manville and Philip Davis) all gave consistently finely judged performances in the rollercoaster of pacings - from the slow deliberate Cyril to the manic and desperate Valerie. High Hopes was a critical success and went on to receive some prestigious European Cinema awards for both Leigh, and Ruth Sheen (Shirley) and Edna Dore (Mrs Bender). On 3rd September 2007 High Hopes finally gained a proper DVD release in the UK (only a few months after being given away free with a newspaper - who will ever understand the film industry?).
The following year saw the release of Mike Leigh's next cinematic outing Life is Sweet. The film centres around Andy, who is the head Chef in a high pressure professional kitchen, his wife Wendy, and their twin daughters who are in their early twenties. First is Natalie, a plumbers mate and something of a tomboy, who is self assured and satisfied with her life. The other twin is Nicola. She is an unemployed chain smoking, aggressive bundle of nerves. Andy buys a small derelict caravan which he plans to turn into a hot dog van but none of his family can see the potential. Wendy agrees to waitress at a mutual friend's new restaurant, which unfortunately has no customers as no one knows about the grand opening. But how will things pan out when Nicola's bulimia starts to spiral out of control and becomes apparent to the family? Life is Sweet kept the momentum going with more European and some US awards, but it was by no means a runaway commercial success.
Mike Leigh biography part 3: 1993 to present.
1993 saw the release of Naked the film that catapulted Leigh into the big league. The story centres around Johnny, a Mancunian on the run, who goes to London to find his ex-girlfriend Louise. When Johnny turns up at Louise's flat she is not in, but her flat mate Sophie is. Charmed by Johnny's wit and intelligence, Sophie soon falls for him, but is quickly dropped from his attentions when Lousie returns, and it becomes clear that Louise is the one person who knows Johnny even better than himself. When Johnny's interest levels start to drop and it becomes clear that Louise wants to have at least part of a life to herself, he hits the streets. Johnny's dissatisfaction with "normal" life leads him to engage with the people he meets and takes every opportunity to spout his doom laden prophecies on the end of society and the reality of existence. Naked was hailed by most critics (despite some vociferous detractors who saw the violence perpetrated against woman in the picture as unchallenged) as an intensely brilliant tour de force of a film. David Thewlis's portrayal of Johnny, the quick witted, motormouthed prophecy of doom, was universally acclaimed as one of the finest performances in many years and both he and Leigh won at Cannes that year.
1996 saw Mike Leigh capitalising on the success of Naked with Secrets and Lies which turned out to be a commercial and critical success (even eclipsing the success of its predecessor with five Oscar nominations, to go with the Awards the film won at both Cannes and Bafta). Secrets and Lies is set in London and centres around Cynthia. Cynthia lives alone with her somewhat sullen daughter Roxanne. Cynthia's brother Maurice runs a photographer's studio which has been successful enough to enable him and his wife Monica to move into a lovely big house. Cynthia and Maurice have drifted apart but as Roxanne's birthday is imminent Maurice is keen to get the extended family together and plans are made for a family barbecue at the new house. Meanwhile Hortense, a professional lady of mixed race who was adopted at birth, is trying to trace her birth mother - which turns out to be Cynthia. Cynthia never told her family about the child, and she seems to have managed to blot it out of her memory almost completely. So when she is contacted to arrange a meeting, she subsequently meets with Hortense and finds it very difficult to accept, but how will the extended family cope with the news that they have another relative that they did not know about for so many years?
The next year saw the release of Career Girls. The story is set in London during the late nineties, with flashbacks to the mid eighties. The story centres Annie, who agrees to go back down to London on a bank holiday weekend to meet up with her old friend Hannah. They both reminisce about the time in their early twenties when they were at university and shared a flat together. Now approaching their thirties they consider to what extent their lives have moved on and how they have changed. They also check out some of their old haunts and chance upon some old faces along the way. Career Girls was not the hit with the critics that Leigh had enjoyed with his previous two movies, and despite some rather good performances (especially from the superb Katrin Cartlidge) the unlikely coincidences that are required to keep the story led to a feeling that the film felt rather too contrived.
Mike Leigh's next film Topsy Turvy (1999) was a departure from his previous films in that it was a period piece based on the real story of Gilbert and Sullivan. It tells the story of messrs who after years of stunning audiences with their operettas, produce "Princess Ida" which receives only lukewarm reviews. Fearful of what the reaction might mean to their future career the pressure of the situation begins to affect their professional relationship relationship. Everyone rushes around the two to get them working together again on the proposed new project "The Mikado". Obviously given its subject matter Topsy Turvy would not really have ever been seen as a candidate for mainstream success, but again it garnered award nominations, including another Oscar nomination for Mike Leigh (it also won two oscars for Make up and Costumes).
2002 saw Mike Leigh back on familiar territory. All or Nothing told the story of family and friends living on a working-class London housing estate. Phil, a taxi-driver, thinks his joyless marriage, stale form the pressure of hard times, is falling apart and that his wife Penny (a checkout worker in a supermarket) no longer loves him. Their daughter Rachel who works in a home for elderly people,sees the schism appear before Penny is aware of it. Their son Rory is unemployed and aggressive to all around, but Rory suffers a heart attack that will ensure the family will have to reassess their life's priorities. All or Nothing was yet another of Leigh's successful studies on the pressures of family life which was again relatively well received without setting the world alight, unlike Leigh's next movie.
Vera Drake (2004) saw Mike Leigh's biggest success to date. Vera Drake is set in London in the 1950's and tells the story of Vera a selfless woman whose life is devoted to caring for her working class family, and looking after her sick neighbour and elderly mother. She also secretly helps women induce miscarriages of their unwanted pregnancies. When Vera is shopped to the Police both Vera and her family fall apart. Vera Drake was universally acclaimed upon its release for its authenticity and honest approach exploring a difficult subject. Vera Drake, quite justly, received countless awards and nominations (including two further Oscar nominations for Leigh).
Fresh from his hugely successful return to the theatre with his new play Two Thousand Years, Mike Leigh's next film project Happy-Go-Lucky. Released in the UK on 18th April 2008, the film is set in London and centers around the story of Poppy (played by the superb Sally Hawkins who also appeared Vera Drake and All or Nothing). Poppy has a bright happy-go-lucky demeanor that seems a contradiction to modern life and all those around her. The film also stars Eddie Marsan (also from Vera Drake) as an uptight angry driving instructor. It is leigh's first film shot in the widescreen format. It also harks back to Leigh's less heavy subject matters and quirky style. It has already garnered 2 prestigious nominations at Berlin International Film Festival. Despite being well received amongst Mike Leigh fans (who have compared it stylistically to Life Is Sweet), the film failed to make too much of an impact on the wider cinema audience. Disaapointing perhaps after the exposure Leigh received from Vera Drake, but understandable given the nature of the film. The DVD received a very prompt DVD release date of 18th August 2008.
By (Happy-go-) lucky chance, to coincide with the release of his new film, a new Mike Leigh box set of DVDs was being released in the UK on 7th April 2008. The 11 disc box set rounds up his 10 feature films and includes the following films: Vera Drake (2004) . Special Features: Cast & Crew documentary, trailer. All or Nothing (2002) . Special Features: Commentary by Mike Leigh, Interviews and Trailer. Topsy-Turvy (1999) . Special Features: Commentary by Mike Leigh, Trailer. Career Girls (1997) . Special Features: Trailer. Secrets & Lies (1996) . Special Features: Interview with Mike Leigh, short film - A Sense of History, Trailer. Naked (1993) . Special Features: Commentary by Mike Leigh, David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge. Trailer Life Is Sweet (1990) . Special Features: Short The Short & Curlies, Trailer. High Hopes (1988) . Special Features: Interview with Mike Leigh and On Set Footage, Production Notes and Biographies. Meantime (1984) . Special Features: Interviews with Mike Leigh, Tim Roth and Marion Bailey. Bleak Moments (1971) - available for the first time in the UK DVD. The DVD set is available from our Mike Leigh UK store, as is the Happy-Go-Lucky DVD.
Another Year - 2010 saw Mike Leigh in a familiar setting with some familiar faces. Perhaps the best ensemble cast he has ever assembled included principal actors who have appeared in many of his previous pieces including: Jim Broadbent (Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, Life Is Sweet etc); Ruth Sheen (High Hopes, Vera Drake, All or Nothing); Lesley Manville (High Hopes, Vera Drake, All or Nothing, Topsy-Turvy, Secret's And Lies, Grown Ups); and Peter Wright (Secret's And Liesand Naked). The film covers familiar territory - that of life - and we get to see both side of the coin of a happy marriage, loneliness, birth and death, sadness and joy, and cheese and onion (well perhaps not that last pairing). This is one of Mike Leigh's very best collaborations, and as an ensemble piece, you will have to go a very long way to find anything that even approaches it. The story and beautifully judged performances meld together into one of the finest films of recent years. It's a shame that The King's Speech overshadowed this film (unjustly it has to be said) due to it's subject matter as in any other year (excuse the pun) this would have been a significant critical, and, to some degree, a commercial hit. The fact that it received only a single oscar nomination (Best Screenplay) and no nominations for the principal players was nothing short of a disgrace. Check out the trailer and other things on the official Another Year site. The DVD of Another Year was released in February 2011.
Mr Turner - 2014 a critically lauded biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner. Another sideways step proved again the mastery Mike Leigh has for his medium, with the film displaying as much energy and beuty as the Turner himself. Magnificent permormances by both Tim Spall and the rep players seemed to have been taken for granted (Cannes aside) in the fervour of the awards season, however the films techinical aspects were rewarded by four nominations at both the BAFTA and Academy Awards. Mr Turner seems to be a film with Mike Leigh at his most wilful, and thankfully so. The audience is treated to a masterpiece of a film with little sop to a casual audience. It feels like Mike Leigh has set out to make a film one hundred percent on his own terms (even more so than usual), and he asks the audience to trust that they will be rewarded with a film how it should be in a perfect world, as opposed to how a film should be in order to gain an wider audience.